The Question of Kurdistan

The Question of Kurdistan

The Kurds have almost no natural resources and suffer from a culture of corruption. But their call for autonomy is a serious threat to the building of a united Iraq.


Outside the violent city of Mosul lies the last checkpoint of the Kurdish militia, or peshmerga. The gunmen control a bridge where the dusty rolling land of the northern Mesopotamian plain tucks itself into a seam along the Al Kazir River. In a few months these fields will be green with winter wheat, but now they are wind-swept, pale and desiccated. The yellow late-afternoon sun casts long shadows.

From a hilltop redoubt, the peshmerga watch but do not control three majority-Arab villages clustered along the winding, silted river below. At the bridge they search cars for explosives and weapons and check the identities of Arab drivers headed east from the hell that is Mosul toward the secure enclave of Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

At the checkpoint there is no Iraqi flag flying, only the banner of greater Kurdistan, which nationalists say includes parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. “We are working for the future, not for now. We want an independent Kurdistan. We want to defend our real borders. And we want America to help,” says the peshmerga‘s commanding officer as we sip hot tea and lean into the wake of his desk fan.

All the outward signs at this checkpoint indicate that Kurdish independence is imminent and that Iraq will soon break apart. The new Constitution can also be read as hastening Iraq’s end by allowing groups of provinces to create semi-autonomous regions, possible mini-states. Many observers fear this will lead to massive intercommunal war–ending with an oil-rich Kurdistan in the north, an oil-rich Shiite state in the south and a badly wounded, festering Sunni-dominated rump of Iraq in the middle.

Some experts actually argue for such a breakup of Iraq, believing that creating three substates will avoid a wider war. The most prominent advocates of this position are Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia. Over the summer Galbraith, an adviser to the Kurds who is highly critical of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, laid out this case in a widely read piece for The New York Review of Books. Since then, among the chattering classes of the United States, something like a Galbraithian consensus has developed that sees the “invented” postcolonial nation of Iraq as inevitably headed for disintegration and Kurdistan as already de facto independent.

Yet on the ground in Kurdistan these assumptions begin to fall apart. The region’s ties to Iraq are quite strong. At the same time, Kurdistan’s internal divisions are surprisingly intense. Just as the Shiites in the south have been fighting among themselves–followers of Sadr versus the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–so too is the political culture of Kurdistan defined by the fault lines of class, tribe, party and ethnicity; there is no monolithic Kurdish state ready to emerge. Most important, Kurdish leaders are keenly aware that the United States has not given them a green light to seek total independence. The Kurds, landlocked and surrounded by enemies, are candid about not wishing to alienate their new patron, Uncle Sam.

As the crisis in Iraq deepens, American policy has devolved from bold ideological vision into an ad hoc collection of emergency tactics aimed at containing the spiraling violence that now seriously hampers even basic petroleum production. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s frantic last-minute, technically illegal negotiations around the referendum on the new Constitution are a case in point. The compromises he brokered were all designed to keep the pieces together, to stave off greater chaos.

“We [Kurds] are more Iraqi than Saddam Hussein,” says Sadi Ahmed Pire, one of the top Kurdish politicians. Pire, sitting in his party’s huge fortified Erbil offices, says that all the high-level American generals and advisers he has spoken with “are committed to a united and democratic Iraq.”

“In 2003 we could have declared independence,” Pire explains. “But we went to Baghdad instead.” When pressed, he and other Kurdish politicians note that full independence for their region would most likely be followed by secession of the Shiite-controlled south. And that, everyone acknowledges, would greatly enhance the already considerable power of Iran. Thus, the dream of an independent Kurdistan is held hostage to US fears of growing Iranian influence.

Economics is another important factor keeping Kurdistan in Iraq. As currently constituted, Kurdistan does not have much oil. The Kurdish economy survives almost entirely on oil revenue from the Iraqi central government. With a population of 4 million, the Kurds get an estimated $5 billion from Baghdad annually. The main petroleum deposits of the north are in and around Kirkuk. But Kirkuk is a disputed city, by no means fully controlled by the Kurds and not included in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Complicating matters are Kirkuk’s large Turkmen and Arab populations. A Kurdish annexation of the city and its environs would not be easy. Without the oilfields of Kirkuk, however, Kurdistan is not economically viable.

Iraq might be an “invented” nation made from three former Ottoman provinces, or vilayets, but geography and infrastructure have given that invention considerable economic and physical coherence. Consider the basic contours of trade: Most commodities consumed in Kurdistan are imported, and 70 percent of those arrive via the ports in Aqaba, Jordan, and Basra. Despite the war these goods are shipped by truck along the California-style highways of central and southern Iraq. Kurdish road-links to Iran and Turkey are simply too underdeveloped and clotted by tax-levying militias, mountains and hostile customs officials to reverse this pattern.

Kurdistan is also culturally linked to Iraq by its Turkmen, Assyrian and Arab communities. As one Turkmen activist put it: “We are the cement that holds the pieces together because our people are spread all across Iraq.”

Back in Erbil the borderland tensions seem far away. Secret police and uniformed peshmerga keep the peace while oil money inflates the economy. Occasionally there are security glitches: The head of the counterterrorism unit in Erbil, Sheikh Zana, for example, was arrested in early summer and revealed to be the head of an Islamic terrorist cell engaged in kidnapping and murder.

More typically, political life in Kurdistan is about power, patronage and corruption. Two secular nationalist parties rule Kurdistan: The western half of the region is controlled by the older, more conservative Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), run by Massoud Barzani, who inherited the party from his father and now monopolizes its key functions with his many Barzani clansmen. In the east the newer, formerly socialist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani is in charge. The PUK is the more secular and less clan-oriented of the two, but both groups draw on family and tribal ties and neither has a coherent ideology. A smattering of Islamic, leftist and minority ethnic parties also hold some seats in local and regional government.

From 1994 to 1999 the tension between the KDP and PUK erupted into fratricidal civil war. At its peak, Barzani even brought in Saddam Hussein’s troops to overrun Talabani’s PUK stronghold in Sulaimaniya. The war left rank-and-file Kurds deeply cynical about Kurdish leadership and organized politics in general.

Now all the important things in Kurdistan come in twos–one for each party. Each party has its own regional Cabinet. All ministries are duplicated. There are two incompatible cell phone systems. Two sets of TV and radio stations, two party-controlled universities. Barzani heads the regional government, while Talabani takes the largely ceremonial post of Iraqi president in Baghdad.

What the parties do share with each other and most of the Iraqi political class is a culture of corruption. As in the rest of Iraq, oil money flows easily while bookkeeping is minimal: According to various audits, between $5 billion and $12 billion in oil revenue has simply gone missing from state coffers. No one really knows how much has been stolen in Kurdistan. But the signs of graft are everywhere.

At the KDP’s Ministry of Economics and Administration I met the meek young Bashdar Habib, general director of planning and follow-up. His office has the feel of a tacky hotel suite–plastic flowers, gray-and-pink splatter-patterned wallpaper. There are no books or reports anywhere. He sits at his desk reading the KDP newspaper. He has been here for three months but cannot give me even the most basic or general numbers about the Kurdish economy because no one has given them to him. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance and no experience in economic planning.

He is apologetic and takes me to meet the director of finance, the older, more commanding but still quite amateur Rasheed Hassn. In that office the story is the same: Little is happening, no numbers are available. Then there is a business interruption. A clerk has a bill for several hundred thousand dollars from a contractor, and it seems that the firm in question may have already been paid but maybe not. No one is sure. Meanwhile, Barzani’s associates are investing huge sums in stadiums, empty shopping malls and luxury housing developments with capital from who knows where. These bizarre, mostly empty trophy projects surround Kurdistan’s two headquarter cities, Erbil and Sulaimaniya.

But this corrupt order–in which clan, party, state and commerce all merge and overlap–is not without benefits for the average Kurd. Vying for the loyalty of common people, the two parties are engaged in a patronage-based cold war in which jobs, houses, pensions, generators, new schools and health clinics are used to win votes, influence and obedience. As one farmer explained it: “Sometimes the parties are judged by how they serve the people.”

In the PUK-controlled village of Greda Boor, not far from the area where KDP influence starts, Akran Anwar Karem and his family are winnowing the chaff from seed onion. “We’ll plant these again later,” he says. Given that Saddam leveled this village during the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, conditions could be worse. He points out a new school and clinic but complains that the promised electrical lines are a year late. He’d like some fertilizer as well.

If the petroleum-funded patronage system can serve a weird redistributive function, it also has a punitive side.

“We have mud houses that we build ourselves,” says Nazwad Muhiadin, who farms cucumbers and tomatoes in a flat, hot KDP-controlled village north of Kirkuk called Sheran. “The KDP built those brick houses for its supporters. When we went to the other party to get a big generator, the KDP threatened to take it from us, so we don’t have one.”

The party patronage system has also served to stall the official Kurdish agenda of neoliberalism–that is to say, the US occupation’s program of mass privatization. Despite the free-market bromides mouthed by party hacks, they continue doing things the old-fashioned way. Many of the nonpetroleum sectors of the economy–cigarettes, cement, utilities and carpets–are still state-held. Education and healthcare are free. The government employs 35 percent of the workforce, and 60 percent of the population receives some sort of pension or government assistance. The land reform of the early 1960s has not been rolled back. All of this bolsters the power of the parties. It also means that the region lacks the truly grinding poverty marked by dump scavenging, begging and mass brigandage that plagues much of the global South.

“They declare they are for privatization, but they don’t do anything,” says a very disappointed Dr. Mihamad Riouf Saeed at Mostansary University in Sulaimaniya. “They don’t privatize anything. We have no plan. There are no economic experts in government. So we eat and the administration goes on.”

Kawkas is a big man with a wide, scowling face and baggy eyes. He is a cocher, a Kurdish nomad, and was named after a common Kurdish tree. He sits cross-legged on a carpet, at the opening of a tent made of woven reed mat walls and a black woolen mesh awning held up in dramatic peaks by six wooden poles. As he talks, Kawkas smokes and drinks tea from a small fluted glass.

Here in this tent is the quintessential heart of Kurdish culture, but the talk is not about nationalist dreams of independence–all Kurds united against Iraq. Instead, the grievances concern other Kurds, the rich and powerful ones.

“This life is like honey mixed with snake poison. It looks like freedom, but we rent this,” Kawkas gestures to the rolling fallow cropland where his sheep graze and to the abruptly rising bare mountains beyond where they grazed a month ago. “Aga, the landlord, controls it all. And the parties, the mayor, they all serve Aga. Aga gives them gifts and they do what he wants.”

Kawkas is angry, but the older man who owns the tent where we sit is scared. “Don’t say this! Don’t talk about these things in front of strangers.” We have hit a nerve: class power in the countryside. Kawkas ignores his elder and tradition and continues enumerating his grievances. The old man gets up and starts pacing outside the tent.

Traditionally Kurdistan was controlled by a landlord class, the agas. Sometimes they were clan leaders, but always they were rich men acting as feudal lords, doling out favors, taking tribute, mediating disputes and imposing punishment. After 1958, when General Kassim overthrew the Hashemite monarchy established by the British, an extensive land reform sought to ruin the aga class, but it persisted. Under Saddam the agas ran pro-government Kurdish militias called the Jash, which hunted down and tortured the rebel peshmerga. Then pieces of the Jash switched sides. Now the agas are insinuating themselves into the politically confused networks of the KDP and PUK, using their capital and superior education to gain government jobs, party posts and contracts.

Delwer Omar Abu Bakr is the KDP-appointed mayor of Degala, a town up the road from Kawkas’s tent. Mayor Delwer, as he is known, is simultaneously suave and defensive; he has the intensity and dark good looks of a movie star and occasionally speaks of himself in the third person. But he won’t say much. I appeal to his vanity, telling him he looks younger than 36 and asking him about himself. He smiles and soon, in a cryptic, typically Iraqi fashion, starts to confess.

“In my heart I hate the agas. They fought us,” says the mayor, who was a peshmerga before studying law. “But they are more intelligent than simple people. They are patient and respectful. Simple people come in dirty and get angry. So the agas are more effective.”

The mayor explains that despite formal land reform, some agas still control public pastures as private property and, in contravention of the law, still collect rents on these properties.

On a hill outside Erbil sits a big yellow house with tinted windows, armed security and a commanding view extending over miles of steep barren ridges. Inside lives Aga Adal Abu Shwara (“Adal with big mustache”), and indeed he has a preposterously large handlebar mustache. Under Saddam, Adal headed a Jash unit called the Special Emergency Squad. Everyone seems to know who he is, and they all say the same thing: He was one of Saddam’s Kurdish thugs. Now Adal heads a United Nations security detail.

In his plush white-carpeted living room, surrounded by gold-colored drapes, ornate wood-framed couches and a huge plasma TV playing a Kurdish musical gala, Adal Abu Shwara sips Pepsi and explains the traditions of the aga.

“To be an aga is a job. We serve the people. We give people land, we find them jobs. All our cars have chains to help pull people out of ditches after accidents. That is why we built this house close to the road.”

Critics charge that the parties use agas to mobilize votes. “Yes, we get the people to vote, but it would be rude for someone in Talabani’s area to make his people vote for Barzani or the other way around. So there are limits.”

Altun Kopri, located between Kirkuk and an oilfield to the northwest–beyond the formal borders of Kurdistan–has long been a majority Turkmen town with a Turkmen name, but in the past two years it has become majority Kurdish. The town sits mostly on a sloping island in the Little Zab River surrounded by fertile flood plains and sandbars. The population here has almost doubled over these two years as Kurds move down from the north and Turkmen move up from Kirkuk and east from Mosul to escape the escalating violence.

This area around Kirkuk and the oilfields is a demographic battleground. Whether or not the north becomes independent, Kurdish leaders want this terrain under their formal control as part of Iraq’s Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. And in preparation for the planned 2007 referendum on Kirkuk’s fate, Kurdish militants seem to be creating facts on the ground. Turkmen say that activists from the PUK and KDP are usurping all the civil service jobs and political power. Some charge that the Kurds are busing in people from the north and registering them to vote in Altun Kopri. Regular Kurds on the street and the local KDP deny this.

“In Altun Kopri it is only tense, but Kirkuk is a time bomb ready to explode,” says Adnan Zada, head of the local Turkmen Front. Despite Zada’s claim that “we cannot have weapons because we are a minority,” some of his men wear pistols tucked in their belts.

By most measures Kirkuk has already started to explode. A Turkmen house painter named Mohamed Ali (or, as he prefers, Chico) is headed home to Toronto after seeing family in Kirkuk. “There was shooting every night, car bombs. We just stayed inside for ten days,” says the distraught Chico. “If I see a fire, am I gonna walk into it? No. I walk away. A lot of Turkmen are leaving.” He says two high-ranking Turkmen policemen were assassinated while he was in Kirkuk and that there was one fairly big, unreported car bomb on October 1.

Worst of all for Chico was the night when men in police uniforms kidnapped his cousin and demanded $40,000 in ransom but settled for $20,000. He is convinced the abductors were cops from Sulaimaniya moonlighting as ethnic gangsters in Kirkuk. His brother had a house and a shop seized by armed Kurds. The brother moved to Istanbul, uncompensated.

Arabs are also under pressure in the area around Kirkuk. Just outside Altun Kopri lives Ahmed Hussein Ahmed, a Kurdish farmer who was driven out of his village in the 1980s and returned after the US-led invasion. “The Arabs who were brought here by Saddam are gone now. They knew that it was not their land and left without violence,” says Ahmed. He says that several Arab villages around Altun Kopri have been completely abandoned.

These simmering ethnic tensions can be read as a prelude to national breakup or merely as an attempt by the Kurdish parties to accumulate more power and resources within a united Iraq–a violent preparation for the Kirkuk referendum in 2007. But if Turkmen and Arabs start to resist Kurdish political muscle by force and the peshmerga in turn escalate, accusing the Arab and Turkmen populations of being insurgents, the simmering violence could boil over into a full-scale war in the worst tradition of recent Iraqi history.

“We will use the Saddam plan,” says Hameed Afandi, the KDP’s Erbil-based minister of peshmerga affairs, when offering his solution to Iraq’s security dilemmas. A guerrilla fighter since 1961, the lean short-haired chain-smoking Afandi speaks in forceful, heavily accented English as he insists that Kirkuk is Kurdish. His comments offer a glimpse of the possible worst-case scenario: “The Americans are too soft. We will kill terrorists in the middle of the street. We will destroy their houses and kill their families. We would be very hard with them!”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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